John Clay: Kentucky's Mark Stoops gaining momentum

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 3, 2014 

His team won just two games, none in the conference, missed a post-season invitation for the program's third straight season, and yet what a big bowl weekend this could be for Mark Stoops.

The momentum actually started to move Thursday night, when the Kentucky football coach was on the Oklahoma sideline in New Orleans cheering as brother Bob Stoops pulled his "Big Game Bob" reputation out of mothballs and the Sooners shocked Alabama 45-31.

And it could wrap up rather nicely on Monday night if Florida State, featuring a defense Stoops helped build, knocks off Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena.

In between, on Saturday, there is a rather large in-state recruit named Matt Elam who will announce whether he will spend his college years at Kentucky or Alabama, plus a Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville High recruit who may or may not be switching his allegiance from Urban Meyer's scarlet and gray to Mark Stoops' blue and white. More on that later.

Right now, it's good to be a Stoops, especially after Thursday night when Oklahoma's offense burned Nick Saban's flat-footed Crimson Tide, which arrived in the Big Easy expecting to win easily as a 15-point favorite.

It wasn't just that Oklahoma won, but how Oklahoma won. Stoops used an up-tempo attack that kept Alabama off balance and which benefited from the stellar play and surgical strikes of redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who outplayed Alabama's Heisman runner-up and Katherine Webb's boyfriend, AJ McCarron.

That's the same offense Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown want to run at Kentucky. That it bore little resemblance to that offense last season had more to do with personnel and injuries and the lack of the same quarterback play that boosted the Boomer Sooners in the Superdome. The scheme is still the same.

In fact, so impressive was Oklahoma, Monday's Auburn-FSU showdown in California will have to knock our socks off to overtake the buzz generated by Bob Stoops' takedown of Saban.

Over the summer, the OU coach claimed the SEC was overrated, then backed up his fighting words by handing Alabama just its ninth loss in the last six years and its first back-to-back losses since 2008.

Kentucky lost 10 football games each of the last two seasons. The Cats haven't won back-to-back games since the first two weeks of the 2011 season. Mark Stoops has his own point spreads to overcome.

Better recruiting is the only sure fix, and the promising strides made by Stoops so far could be augmented Saturday if the 372-pound Elam, out of John Hardin High School, does the expected and announces on national television during the U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio that he will join Stoops' restoration efforts.

Elam could have company in Marcelys Jones, a four-star offensive lineman, who has been committed to Ohio State.

Jones is reportedly wavering on his pledge and could end up at UK in time for the spring semester.

"It sounds like something's happening," Jones' high school coach, Ted Ginn Sr., told the Herald-Leader's Ben Roberts. "But I really don't know."

If everything goes right this weekend, here are the happenings Mark Stoops could tell future recruits about:

"Did you see Oklahoma upset Alabama on Thursday night? Well, the head coach, he's my brother, Bob. And the defensive coordinator, he's my brother, Mike, who I coached with at Arizona.

"And did you see Matt Elam commit to Kentucky over Alabama on Saturday? He's one of the cornerstones to our comeback plans.

"And did you see Florida State beat Auburn on Monday night? I recruited a lot of those Seminoles, took that defense from 108th nationally the season before I arrived to No. 2 in the nation the year I left for Kentucky.

"That's right, Kentucky."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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